Allow change to happen.
I sit at a desk and gaze through the window screen at myna birds and coconut palms.
I have seen poverty before. In high school, my parents and school sent me on all kinds of mission trips – to build houses in Tijuana slums, to dig pits in a deaf village in Jamaica.
It’s what you allow to enter in. (Let it enter in.) Sometimes, you are affected without trying – you see a small horse attempting to walk with a broken leg, or a dead dog on the side of the road. When your friends and family are affected by loss, you can’t help but feel it.
But the world at large is infected with so much sorrow you have to keep it away or you will go crazy. You have to focus on joy, and friendship and healing.
Yesterday, Elizabeth, the cook at my beautiful Ayurvedic retreat center, invites me to her house, about ten minutes away by rickshaw. At 1:30 PM, after she cleans up the remains of our lunch, I hear her voice from the road outside my cottage.
“Rebecca!” she calls, louder than the other women chattering in a group around her. “Four o’clock; my house; today. OK?”
“OK!” I yell back.
Elizabeth is a fantastic cook. She won’t eat anything she prepares for us; none of the Indian staff will eat our food. It’s too bland, they say. They want spice and crazy flavor.
But, after weeks of eating regular Indian fare (spicy and FRIED), Elizabeth’s food is nourishing: cumin and cinnamon flavored vegetable dishes, perfect rice and always fruit – papaya sprinkled with lime juice and local bananas. Sometimes there are flat, hot chapatis or little dishes of coconut pudding dotted with roasted cashews.
She brings us the experience of abundance, and perfect order. The kitchen is always spotless. Our table is perfect, every day. She stands back, watching us eat. Yesterday, I walk in to breakfast and she sings a song about me – something about “sweet” and waggling her finger back and forth, laughing with the other ladies, “no, no!”
I ask, “Elizabeth, will you come back to America with me, in my suitcase?”
“Yes, madam,” she says. Always yes.
At 3:45, Irin arrives in the rickshaw. He is always early, always happy to wait. His hair is perfectly oiled. His dress shirt is, as usual, rolled up to his elbows, neat and ironed, tucked in to his white dhoti, a scarf wrapped around his thighs that comes to his knees.
I sit back on the rickshaw’s shiny green cushion and notice (now it’s a habit) the statue on his little dashboard. It’s Christ on the cross.
In Northern India, the rickshaws and taxis were adorned with miniature Hindu Krishnas and Ganeshas. Here, in Southern India, Jesus grimaces, bleeding from his crown of thorns, or Mary smiles calmly. Being a Christian is a way to escape the Hindu caste system, although the church exacts its own dues, in the form of tithes and strict adherence to its rules, according to Dr. Subhash.
Irin accelerates through the narrow streets, honking loudly at each (and there are many) blind turn. In India, it’s as if they assume all drivers are meditating with their eyes closed. They use the horn to signal to everyone – drivers, dogs, camels, pedestrians, that they are coming.
Sometimes, driving in India, I’ve found it’s advisable to keep your eyes on the dashboard Christ rather than what’s happening on the road. You feel better.
I’ve become accustomed to the view from the rickshaw – rancid drains, sleeping stray dogs, adorable children with their mothers in bright saris. Shops with bright tacky signs selling food, dirt everywhere, and men outnumbering women 30:1. My Rajastan taxi driver Hanuman says this is because “Men are allowed to go here and there. But women must stay at home, and the husband can tell her if she go here and there. Usually, not.” The smell of exhaust, the feel of blackened soot across the skin of my face.
We pull up to a road of large houses. So many large houses in Southern India, unlike the tiny cement squares, huts made from clay with thatched roofs and makeshift shacks in the north! They are surrounded by garbage and small flowering trees. They have high roofs and are painted bright pink, lime green and purple.
Elizabeth is waiting, dressed in a fresh purple sari. We frighten a few stray kittens as we walk down the dirt pathway to her front yard. It is a typical stretch of flat brown dirt, soft and sandy in texture. We walk past a dilapidated awning that her son uses as a carpentry workshop, up some steps onto a small porch. We remove our shoes, and three small girls, like those Russian stacking dolls (what are they called?), appear.
The girls are so clean. The skirts of their dresses stand out like they’ve been starched. They all have names that sound like Mini. They smile, in a row, gold bracelets sparkling on all six wrists.
It strikes me that I’ve never left the taxi before. In India, I have gone from plane to taxi or rickshaw to site to hotel. I’ve been such a tourist. I point and smile to the skeleton of a tree, decorated for Christmas with streamers and foil stars; the clay figures of the Nativity placed outside the window on a bed of fake grass.
We go inside. The floor is marble. It is the only finished part of the house. The walls are tall, so it is cool. The walls are unfinished cement, like a cave. Like a ruin. Or in this case, a partially-finished building, inhabited by necessity before completion. Over the mantle is every kind of replica of Jesus.
Elizabeth takes me farther within. “My room,” she says. There is a tiny cot with a blanket. There is a table with a huge photograph of a handsome man, right next to a smaller painting of Mary. This time she has huge streams of blood running from her eyes.
“My husband.” Elizabeth points at the man. “He die. Bladder cancer. Thirteen years.”
“How old are you, Elizabeth?” There are no lines on her face. It is beautiful, like the skin of a Buckeye. Her hair is slightly graying at the temples, and I know she has a daughter older than me.
“53,” she says. She pulls me away from her room, and I see the girls’ room and her son’s room with his wife, also the kitchen. It is like a cave, a ruin, partially complete. It is such a contrast from the perfect walls, perfect decor of the guesthouse where I am used to seeing her.
She watches my gaze. “We finish house,” she says. “First we pay bank 30,000RP ($561 US). Then, we paint.”
I ask her what colors she is planning, like I would to any friend at home. “Blue. White,” she says.
“Everywhere?” I ask.
Everywhere. Mary’s colors.
“Sit,” she says, and brings a chair to the kitchen table. She places a full glass of mango juice in front of me, a huge platter of pistachio cookies and another of a spicy nut mix. I ask her to sit with me, but she stands, smiling. The three girls all stand as well. They smile. I offer them cookies; they each take one.
I am smiling too much. I am saying silly things. I want to put them at ease. I want to find ease within.
The girls bring family photos. I point and ask questions and they smile and answer when they understand. I don’t want the snacks, because I am on an Ayurvedic cleanse, but I eat something from each dish. I drink all the mango juice even though it has added refined sugar. I feel terrible thinking about these things.
In my regular life, I spend so much time thinking about these things.
Elizabeth has to leave soon. She is going to the hospital. She has already been once this week – a cough, and a pain in her chest. She shows me the medicine they gave her; it isn’t working.
I wonder if her employer, my Ayurvedic doctor, can treat her. She has worked for him for 13 years. She shakes her head (of course not). She is not asking for sympathy, but the average Indian citizen doesn’t have the money for Ayurvedic treatments. Even though I am paying less than $15 US per day – the hospital is free. You get what you pay for, I’ve been told.
Elizabeth’s sister also worked for the guesthouse for many years. Last Christmas, she was leaving work in a rickshaw. A motorcycle ran into her, and she was taken to the hospital. “She use…” Elizabeth pushes her hands in a forward motion. A walker.
I ride back to the guesthouse. Irin has been waiting.
There are things you can say. That people become used to anything, that they are even happier without a lot of stressful possessions. Healthcare and relative safety. That you (one person) can’t really make a difference. That having a house (even a partially-built one) puts an Indian family so far ahead of most.
Poverty is everywhere.
Sometimes we let it touch us. Only rarely can we allow it in.
I want to pay for Elizabeth to see Doctor Subhash. I want to send her money to pay off her house, once I begin to earn again. I want to give her 600RP ($12 US) when I leave, so that her granddaughters can pay for a month of their schooling.
I want to buy my way out of the guilt that I feel for having so much, and not always valuing it.
Allow it. Allow your love for this woman across the world from your mother, who is your mother’s age, to flow. Allow it to flow like those bright red streams from Mary’s eyes.
One voice is a bit dramatic.
The other voice says, Maybe she brings guests here each month, and tells them the same stories. Maybe this is her way of extracting money from rich American tourists. Everyone seems to have one.
I have to decide to open my heart, or to allow doubts and distance to build another wall between my privilege and anothers’ lack